by JACKIE HOLLAND-DECKER
In the Bible, the little shepherd boy David slays the mighty Goliath with nothing but a slingshot and a heap of faith. The Rockford girls soccer team had the faith, but their skills were no match for Portage Central, the top-ranked team in Division I. The Mustangs ended the Rams’ tournament run June 2 with a decisive 4-1 victory in the regional opener at East Kentwood.
“They are the best high school team I have ever seen,” said Rockford Coach Amria Ponne. “They could beat many small college teams. I can take a loss to a team that is that great.”
The Rams were well-prepared for the Mustangs and knew their weaknesses. While watching game film from Portage Central’s district win, a handful of the Rams evaluated what they needed to do to win. What they didn’t know was that the Mustang’s speed, coupled with their sharp passes and great ball-handling, would be too much to overcome.
The Mustangs struck early on their way to victory. Sophomore Charlie Socia scored the first of her four goals just six-and-a-half minutes into the game. Rockford’s Samantha Decker headed the cross from Portage Central’s Mara Bennett away from the goal, but Socia got the rebound, snuck in behind the defense, took advantage of the chaos in front of the net, and shot it in from close proximity. Rockford goalie Kristin Darby never had a chance.
That became the story throughout the game: textbook perfect crosses or short passes in front of the net with Socia always taking advantage of frenzied activity in the box to finish. Four different Mustangs assisted on her goals.
“They are very fast and great ball handlers,” said Ponne. “They play beautifully together. They always know where each other is, especially 23 [Socia] and 25 [Paige Wester].
“They are pretty tough to stop, and I would say impossible to shut out. No matter how great our defense is, No. 23 or 25 is going to score. When they have a chance to score and you think ‘this should go in,’ it’s in.”
The Rams scored their lone goal 1:28 into the second half. Decker received the pass from Lyndsey Hutchings on the left side and dribbled up the field. Mustang keeper Sam Bowditch stopped Decker’s rocket shot but dropped it, allowing senior standout Matti Graves to kick in the rebound.
“Sam Decker worked her offensive mojo into that play by receiving the pass and dribbling straight to the goal. She took the shot, and the keeper dropped it, and Matti was there to finish,” said Ponne.
“Their keeper was their weakest link, and we told the girls this,” she added. “We told Matti she would get a goal if she was framing and she did. She does a great job of following the shots.”
That shot was one of only a handful the Rams got off. The Mustangs, who outshot Rockford 17-6, constantly pressured the ball, forcing the Rams to shoot without control. Most of the time, however, everyone was playing defense to try to shut the Mustangs down.
“We never really played our game, and it had nothing to do with heart. The heart was there,” said Ponne. “We had a tough time getting the ball to the center mids because the defense much of the time was rushed to make clears instead of passing to a player.
“If we could have found our game, I think the score could have been easily 2-1, but even if we played our best game ever, Portage Central was still the better team and probably will win state.
“I’m okay losing a game to a team like that, and the girls should be as well. It’s more fun to win, but a loss feels better when you know the other team is better and deserves the W.
“The positive out of this loss is that we can learn so much from PC.,” she added. “It is great for the girls to see the possibilities of a high school team like PC and learn from it, from tactics to finishing. I have already created two different drills for next year.”
The Mustangs (25-0-2), who won the Division II championship in 2000, beat Okemos 2-0 in the regional final to advance to semi-final play. The Rams finished the season with a 15-5-2 record which included a district title and victory in the O-K Red Conference tournament.
“I am extremely proud of these girls,” said Ponne. “This was the first time that Rockford has ever won the conference tournament and the districts in the same year.
“This team does not just play with heart but also with skill and soccer smarts. These girls know the game and know how to play, and they have proved that.”